The Healthcare Hub

Can We Crowdsource Healthcare Transformation?

Monday, January 7, 2013

I am generally an optimistic person, and given the advent of a new year, I am feeling particularly so, even about the seemingly insurmountable task of transforming healthcare into a system that truly can deliver better care at a more affordable cost. One reason is a PBS interview I watched over the holiday break that illustrated the real problem-solving power of online, connected communities. If we can harness the collective intelligence of those communities, I am beginning to think we can accomplish anything. If we don’t and try to go it alone, especially given the multitude and diversity of the players involved in healthcare, I don’t think we will get where we need to be, at least not to the degree or on the timeline necessary.

The interview was with Adrian Treuille, the Carnegie Mellon computer science professor behind FoldIt, an online video game in which players try to fold proteins into their most stable shapes. Unstable proteins can cause cancer and help viruses like HIV replicate, while a well-folded protein can cure diseases. Since it was released in 2008, more than 300,000 people have played FoldIt, and in 2011, they were able to solve an HIV-related puzzle in just three weeks, one that had stumped scientists who had been working on it for a decade.

Since then, Treuille has created a new game, called eteRNA, which seeks to solve a similar folding problem, but this time with RNA, which creates the genetic code for some viruses. Unlike FoldIt, eteRNA asked gamers to submit their configurations, which scientists then replicated in the lab. Despite a massive number of submissions, none of the synthesized molecules folded into stable shapes. The scientists thought the game was a failure. What they did not fully appreciate was the power of the community. eteRNA shared the results with the gamers, and when they saw what happened they got together on chat rooms and started analyzing their mistakes and revising their strategies as a group. Six months later, the players had leaned how to fold RNA.

The important point of this story is the human factor. As Treuille explained on the television show NovaScienceNow, you don’t always know if you hire someone if that person will be good at the job. In this case, he says, “We sort of hired the world and the world turned out to be awesome.” He envisions science (while I would see healthcare transformation) as becoming more of a team sport, but not one with 30 people on a team, more like tens or even hundreds of thousands of collaborators.

Working with GHX since it was founded in 2000, I have seen the power of the community transform supply chain processes related to medical and surgical supplies. Last year, the community working with GHX topped $2.5 billion in documented savings through the shared use of collaborative technology and standardized processes. And I am equally encouraged by how providers and suppliers are working together now to reinvent processes around the implantable device supply chain. Given that implantable devices are some of the most advanced and expensive pieces of medical technology, used by the most highly trained clinicians in sophisticated procedure suites, the opportunities to improve quality and lower costs are significant. As Gartner Research wrote in a recent report, the “GHX Initiative Could Take Healthcare Supply Chain Collaboration to a New Level.”

Now, just think of what we could do if we brought the best minds together, real time, in a collaborative community to help redesign healthcare. I don’t have all the answers, but somehow, I think the collective global brain does. I call for a meeting of the minds.

Do you have thoughts on how we can crowdsource healthcare transformation? I would love to hear for you.  

Image Description

Karen Conway

Vice President, Healthcare Value